Yann's View: Naomi Osaka and pressure pressers
by Yann Auzoux, Tennis Central CEO
Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from Roland Garros last week has unearthed old memories for me and, I must say, has stirred feelings of solidarity with her. For we believe at Tennis Central that technique is important, but mental processes are paramount in building any player, elite or recreational. Finding confidence, combating anxiety—we may think these struggles evaporate over time. They don't, not even for a World No. 1.
"You think I am better than I am—brighter than I am, kinder, more compassionate, capable of more things, as good at life as I am at the game—and I'm not," Ken Dryden once wrote on celebrity and confidence. "And all of us lose. The public loses because it feels less worthy than it is; I, because once, twenty-three years old and trying to learn about myself, I wanted to believe I was everything others said I was, or soon would be."
Canadiens fans didn't see their goalie Dryden off the ice any more than we see Osaka off the court. When he wrote it he was looking back on a Hall of Fame career. Osaka herself is twenty-three now. She may be the world's best, but she is still trying to fight anxiety and the pressure of expectation. When we see her, on court, she is brimming with confidence, polite and yet aggressive in competition. When we don't see her? We don't know, and have only to listen to her to find out.
I know what facing a hounding press can be like when you feel fragile. When I was sixteen, I played my first Davis Cup match for Cameroon. I remember the pageantry, of course. We played Ivory Coast, and I lost in three tough sets to someone twice my age. I also remember being ten years younger than my nearest teammate—and, despite that, being selected as our team's top player.
That was the press's main line of questioning after the match. What did you think of your position on the team? Shouldn't the older guys with more experience have that honor?
Aren't you taking food off the table of older players who weren't selected?
It was a lot for a sixteen year old to handle. There are classy ways to answer such questions, but no right way. Reporters are always looking for a cause célèbre even where there is none.
Generational talents in other sports have to learn to deal gracefully with the media from such a young age. But in tennis almost every player does—especially women, who historically are more often clearly destined for stardom in their teens. We don't realize the toll it takes on young players when we salt the fresh wounds they need time to nurse. We also need to acknowledge the impact growing up under the microscope has on players who know no childhood other than the scrutinized, public one they've lived.
Dryden makes the point that when we extend the otherworldliness of our athletic heroes from physical feats to the rest of their lives, we the public lose out. We seem to fall short in comparison, when really they are otherworldly in only one realm—sports. This impacts all of us, but especially young players I see in our system. So just as, in my opinion, the French Federation (FFT)—and from my playing days, I know them well—ought to have done more to facilitate Osaka's mental health instead of taking such a hardline stance, we can do more to facilitate our own players' mental health, as we have focused on for so long at Tennis Central.
I am not talking about coddling. The cauldron of the court makes certain we can't coddle our children. For kids who love the game, there is no escaping the crushing feeling of defeat. You lose a lot more than you win until you become great. Simply to go on court is to put yourself on the line. That will never change. What we want to do as parents and coaches is to help them understand that every performance is not a referendum on their self-worth.
Let them soak in the feelings themselves instead of feeling the need to respond to our criticism or praise. Don't build up the wins to be monumental, so that the losses then feel debilitating. This is how I coach, how we train our coaches to coach, and how I advise parents to approach their young players reeling after an emotional roller coaster. The time for evaluation is in training.
Nor is Osaka asking for coddling. She did not distinguish between press conferences after wins and those after losses. She is not the petulant, sore loser such a tact would make her. I can see how some might criticize athletes who bask in winning glow but then run and hide after a bad day at the office. We all have parts of our jobs we'd rather outsource. However, to say she is keen to use the platform for social issues but not for the pointed tennis questions misses the point. She will always have that platform, thanks to social media, and it is not restricted to the emotional turmoil of a match postmortem.
There was a time when players and tours relied on the press. Billie Jean King would sit for hours to promote her burgeoning Virginia Slims tour. No one would recall Patrick McEnroe's or Vitas Gerulaitis's legendary retorts if they'd been uttered to an empty room. They still rely on the press, to an extent, but less so because of their ability to connect directly with fans online.
The landscape surrounding the press and athletes' mental health is changing. It's already changed. On that you'll get no judgment from me. It is neither good nor bad. But all the same, we must adapt to it.